GLEN COVE, N.Y. –– The average age of the semifinalists here at the U.S. Women’s Amateur is 15.75. That’s one year less than the average age of semifinalists at the 2014 Girls’ Junior. It’s the youngest collection of semifinalists in championship history.
“It’s fun watching the junior golfers dominate,” said 16-year-old Kristen Gillman, who gets her braces off next month.
Of the four players remaining at Nassau Country Club, 16-year-old Brooke Mackenzie Henderson is by far the most decorated player. She’s Golfweek’s top-ranked amateur and No. 2 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking.
The gritty Canadian powerhouse owns three professional titles on the Canadian Women’s Tour (two this summer). She tied for 10th at the U.S. Women’s Open to learn low amateur honors and tied for 26th at the Kraft Nabisco last spring. Her 2014 titles include the Porter Cup, Ontario Women’s Amateur, Scott Robertson Memorial, Sally and Junior Orange Bowl.
To advance to the semifinals, Henderson defeated Alison Lee, who ended her freshman year ranked No. 1 in college golf.
“I’ve gotten a lot stronger mentally, which is huge in match play,” said Henderson. “Before this year my best finish was the Round of 32.”
A prime example would be the 17th hole when Lee dropped a 35-foot birdie putt to extend the match. Henderson didn’t let the momentum shift rattle her going to the 18th tee. She piped a drive down the fairway and hit her approach safely onto the green.
For Lee, a semifinalist last year, it was a bad time to have an off-day with the putter. She three-putted three times.
“Even one three‑putt is bad,” said Lee, “but they just kept coming.”
This will likely be Lee’s final USGA match-play event as she heads to the first stage of LPGA Q-School later this month. The UCLA player first qualified for a USGA event, the Girls’ Junior, at age 12 and “miraculously” made the cut. She played in her first U.S. Women’s Open at 14 and lost in the final of the Girls’ Junior to Minjee Lee at 17.
“I’m really disappointed that I couldn’t make it all the way this year,” said a composed Lee from behind the 18th green as Gillman battled.
Gillman, 16, was down four holes with six to play against the more experienced Su-Hyun Oh. The Texan is making her debut at the Women’s Amateur. Her expectations for the week were high considering that one week ago she closed with a 5-under 66 to win the Junior PGA Championship by 11 strokes. Her 16-under 268 total there bested the previous record of 271 set by Aree Song Wongluekiet 15 years ago.
Gillman can’t point to anything specific that has spurred her rise to No. 2 in Golfweek’s Junior rankings. She advanced to the Round of 16 at the Girls’ Junior last month and then went on a tear at the Junior PGA. The Alabama commit had good friend Bethany Wu, this week’s medalist, on her bag but said her father will caddie the semis because Wu has to leave.
Gillman won the 17th hole with a birdie from 5 feet and drained a clutch 4-footer for par to take the 18th and square the match. She then birdied the 20th hole from 15 feet to close it out.
“I just told myself that I was going to keep fighting,” said Gillman of her dramatic comeback. “I didn’t want to leave here with any regrets.”
Back home in Austin, Texas, Gillman drives a Hyundai Elantra though she wishes she had a truck. The high school junior takes her lessons at the Jim McLean Academy in Fort Worth and will be a freshman at Alabama in the fall of 2016.
Joining Gillman as a semifinal long-shot is Hannah O’Sullivan, another rising high school junior who beat several strong college players to get to the semifinals, including four-time All-American Grace Na, 5 and 4, on Friday afternoon.
“Really it’s kind of a dream come true,” said O’Sullivan, who wore a USC T-shirt and spent a considerable amount of time on the putting green after play.
O’Sullivan was born in Singapore but moved to California around age 1. The family currently lives in Arizona.
“My dad is a big, tall Irishman,” she said.
O’Sullivan isn’t new to playing above her age. At the age of 12 she won the California Junior State Championship against a 17-year-old who’d just committed to Stanford.
Rounding out this fresh-faced foursome is Andrea Lee, the youngest of all at 15. Lee, playing in her third Women’s Amateur, made a double-eagle in Round 1 of match play at this year’s Girls’ Junior. She’s the top-ranked junior in the country and winner of the 2014 Rolex Tournament of Champions and Yani Tseng Invitational. Lee, who turns 16 on Aug. 15, has verbally committed to Stanford.
“I’m playing pretty well, other than a couple erratic shots right now,” said Lee. “Tomorrow I’m just going to stay patient, try and play like I’ve been playing, and just focus on my own game.”
It should feel like any other junior event.